Police chokehold in Colorado must be stopped

Author: - March 27, 2015 - Updated: March 27, 2015

Jovan Melton Official Photo 2015.jpg

“I can’t breathe.”

In 2014, Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African American man, spoke these now well-known words with his final breaths as New York City police officers apprehended him with a chokehold for selling single cigarettes. This came after Garner was breaking up a fight on the street before officers were able to arrive.

The officers were not held responsible for his death.

In 2010, Marvin Booker, a 56-year-old African American man, was killed in a Denver jail when five deputies attempting to restrain him Tasered him and placed him a chokehold for 2 minutes and 30 seconds. In 2014, a jury awarded his family $4.6 million in a civil suit against the city.

The officers were not held responsible for his death.

Across the country, a renewed debate around the police use of the chokehold is occurring. I say renewed because this debate is not new. In 1982, James Mincy, Jr., a 20-year-old African American man from Los Angeles, was killed when officers used a chokehold on him after a traffic stop for a cracked windshield.

That incident prompted many cities and states to ban police use of the chokehold. Here in Colorado, State Rep. Wilma Webb attempted to end the practice but was unsuccessful in passage of the legislation.

So if we’ve had this debate before, why is this subject coming back up in a national dialogue?

One reason is the technology that people now carry with them everyday in their cellphones allows these incidents to be routinely recorded and shared with people across the country. This increased documentation shows that these acts are not uncommon or happening only in our state, but in many communities throughout the nation. Another reason, a new generation of youth too young to remember the ills of the past. Even the Rodney King story seems like a lifetime ago in some respects. As the old adage goes, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

But lastly and more importantly, you’ll notice that in these three examples mentioned, the victim was African American. The view of law enforcement by minority communities has historically been fraught with fear, pain, inequity and despair. It’s that emotional response felt when seeing or even imagining an officer with an arm around the neck of someone of color that adds even more gravity to the situation.

Most police officers don’t intend to strike fear into the heart of a member of a minority community. But techniques like the chokehold exacerbate these sentiments. The chokehold is both violent and excessive. Because it’s a very personal, physical struggle between two people for control of one over the other, it evokes deep-seated feelings about dominance and submission. And when race is added to the equation, suddenly it becomes bigger than just the two individuals involved. It symbolizes oppression and the community’s fight for civil rights.

To address this, the Colorado General Assembly will consider HB 15-1291, which will prohibit the use of the chokehold by law enforcement, with the exception of protecting the officer from death. If passed, an officer found violating this prohibition would be subject to the current penalty of excessive force, which is a class one misdemeanor. In other words, it will be illegal for law enforcement to apprehend or detain someone with this dangerous practice.

The goal of ending the practice of the chokehold is twofold.

The first goal of the bill is to decrease the number of unintentional deaths and serious injuries that occur from use of the chokehold. There are two types of chokeholds, one that obstructs airflow to the lungs (tracheal choke), and one that obstructs blood flow to the brain (carotid restraint or “sleeper hold”). The hold that cuts off airflow is considered the most dangerous because it can cause long-term damage to the trachea, and even result in strangulation. The hold that cuts off blood flow is not considered as dangerous, but to people who tend to suffer from heart conditions and high blood pressure, i.e. black people, it can be just as deadly. No one should lose his or her life from either of these restraints.

The second goal is to restore trust between law enforcement and all communities across Colorado. Use of the chokehold is just as emotionally harmful to the community as it is physically harmful to individuals. We’ve seen the effects of this recently through civil unrest, protests, student walk-outs and public die-ins. People are saying enough is enough. It’s now time for our legislature and those charged with protecting us to listen to us.

“I can’t breathe.”

Mr. Booker, we hear you! Mr. Garner, we hear you!

State Rep. Jovan Melton, a Democrat, represents House District 41 in Aurora.